The Psychology of Volume
By Kevin West
have noticed a shift that has taken place musically over the past 30 years, which greatly affects us as worshippers—since it affects us as worshipers, it greatly affects us as worship leaders. I can’t speak for every church and every denomination, however I feel confident this affects most churches that have a “contemporary” style of music.
So, let me tell you my observation and then I will try to back it up with some examples. The volume music is played at can have a direct result in how engaged a congregation is in worship.
I’m cringing even as I type that. Volume shouldn’t have anything to do with how engaged we are in worshiping the One who gave His life for us. However, in my experience, for this generation it does.
About 8 years ago my wife and I were visiting a fairly large church (in people and building size). We were singing the songs trying to engage in worship. The worship leader started to lead a song I was pretty familiar with and really loved so I began to sing the song loudly. Just then the worship leader began “making the song his own”—he zigged when I zagged. I ending up singing the wrong notes pretty loud, embarrassing myself. Instantly, I reduced my volume and looked around to see who noticed my wrong notes. It was in that service I realized a few things:
- I, like so many, get embarrassed when I sound awful in front of people
- Because the volume in the church was low and everyone could hear me, I began to sing softer
- Because I’m not the only one who does 1 & 2, the entire congregation was singing softer
- As a result of singing softer, I was more passive and less engaged
Let me give you another example. I was talking with a friend (who is in his 20s) who recently started attending a new church. He was telling me what he enjoyed about his new church home. One of his comments was, “I love that the music is loud enough that no one can hear me singing.” I found that comment fascinating and began to ponder it in light of my own experiences.
When there is no fear of embarrassment, people tend to sing louder. When people sing louder, in many cases, they become more actively engaged in worship.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying the music has to be loud in order to worship through singing; volume is not the issue. The bigger issue is how this generation is connecting with God. I believe there is something in us that wants to sing with all our might (no matter the volume of the music), and when we are not able to do that, we become more passive as worshippers.
What has happened in the last 30 years for this culture shift to take place?
I believe we have become a less musically educated society. My parents’ generation grew up with music in school. Everyone had some, even if minimal, exposure to music and therefore a certain comfortableness with it. In addition, every church had a choir. In choir, people learn how to sing and exercise their vocal muscles. They become more confident with their voice. Music education and choirs can contribute to raising the overall musicality of a congregation. As the musicality is raised, the congregation is not as self-conscious concerning their individual voices.
Another contributing factor is the number of songs a congregation has to learn and on top of that the different arrangements played from one community to another. I love that there was an explosion of new worship music in the 90’s and 2000’s. I love that it’s accessible and there is a wider range of styles within the genre. However, one advantage to singing out of a hymnal was the commonality of the melody and arrangement of the song, which leads to a familiarity for the worshipper to sing out confidently.
I believe it’s important to change with culture, where it doesn’t contradict sound doctrine. When I was younger, volume didn’t play the same role as it does now. We also did not have the same kind of stage lighting (or any stage lighting) and I didn’t hear a guitar solo in church until I was in high school. But things have changed. And they will change again. And again after that.
I’m a worship leader, I don’t care about volume, lights or guitar solos. Well, OK…I care a little, but my number one priority as a worship leader is to help my congregation engage in worship. If turning the volume up helps them sing with all their hearts, thereby helping them engage in worship, that’s all I really care about.
This article is not intended to be the Bible on this subject. I merely want to continue the discussion of how we are loving each other across generational lines. I recognize there are other and deeper discussions that could be had regarding this topic (and related topics, such as how have performance/concert attributes, that have snuck into to congregational worship, affected the Church). I encourage you to start your own discussions within your community.
In addition, you’ll notice I have not mentioned specifics, such as DB levels. What’s right for one community may not be right for another. Do some research. Test things out. Pray for wisdom. God will help you come to the right conclusion for your congregation.
Kevin West is a creative arts pastor/worship leader in Southern California. He’s passionate about helping people connect with God, loves his family and really enjoys a good hamburger. For more of Kevin’s writings or to listen to his music, visit kevinwestmusic.net. You can also follow him on twitter (@kevindwest).